Interview with Zafar Anjum: Exploring life in Singapore as a ‘foreign talent’

Sri Lankan journalist Ranga Chandrarathne interviews Zafar Anjum, author of The Singapore Decalogue

The Singapore Decalogue is woven around the series of episodes encountered by the protagonist Asif Basheer, a foreign talent who arrived in Singapore to make a better life. It seems that Asif’s life is a literary devise to describe the complex socio-cultural landscape of Singapore. You, yourself, are a foreign talent and successfully naturalised in Singapore.  What are the range of experiences which inspired you to create Asif Basheer?

IMG_7859Zafar: It’s like asking me in a backhanded way whether The Singapore Decalogue is an autobiographical work. Like most literary works, it is and it isn’t.  Let us break down Asif’s character to see where he comes from and what is the genesis of this character.

At the metaphorical level, Asif’s story is a parable of moral corruption, of the moral decline of a person who loses his path and gets spiritually gutted out by the modern city life. You see, life asks us to make moral choices all the time and hence, we have to keep taking moral decisions at every turn in life. Should we give money to the drooling beggar with chapped lips sitting on the pavement, whose body is emaciated with hunger and starvation? Shall we help the blind man cross the street even if it means missing the bus to office and being late for work? Making a moral decision could be as simple as that.

When I came to Singapore nearly ten years ago, I was naive but not as naive as Asif is in the book. Some of the experiences that Asif has gone through, I have gone though too and some of the events that happen to Asif probably come from experiences of my friends and other people whom I have watched over the years, not so consciously though, and some of the episodes are purely imaginary.

While writing the book, I was also trying to pay a tribute to some of my favorite writers—writers whose work I have admired for a long time, writers who have not faded away from my heart, such as Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Kafka, Joyce, Hemingway, and Hanif Kureishi and many stories in the collection reflect their sensitivities and attitudes that have seeped into my writing by just being a reader of their works.

In a sense, this collection also emphasizes my interest in robust storytelling. What is that, you might ask. I believe that for stories to really work, they have to stand on some kind of real life experience. For me, fiction is not just pretty language, and this is just a personal view. There is poetry for that purpose. Literary fiction is about the exactness of expression and that exactness can only come from the lifeblood of experience.  This is also the reason I enjoy reading only a handful of writers. I don’t seem to enjoy storytellers who only hide behind pretty language, and somehow I sense that when I read such writing. Read Chekhov, Tolstoy, Joyce, Hemingway, Carver—you don’t have the feeling that they are phony storytellers. Their stories are examples of robust storytelling.

Singapore is a multi-ethnic and highly cosmopolitan society with diverse socio-cultural life. Through the character of Asif Basheer, you have taken the reader to diverse segments of Singaporean society and its social life in general and in its prolific night life. Your comments…

Singapore-Decalogue_coverYes, that was the idea. I wanted to explore how best to show different facets of life in modern Singapore seen and experienced through the life of a ‘foreign talent’.

When a new immigrant enters a society, he goes through a gamut of experiences. These could be harrowing or pleasant or both. Being an immigrant entails its own struggles and it also depends on the kind of economic and social class one belongs too. Asif is a minority in a minority: He is an Indian in Singapore and then he is a Muslim Indian. How does he find his niche? What kind of prejudices he has to face? All that is determined from his social and economic class situation.

At one level, Asif really is a vehicle to explore the fault lines of Singaporean society. Is there an overt or covert kind of racism in Singapore? Is there is a spiritual vacuum in Singapore? What are the effects of living in a highly wealth-oriented and capitalistic society like Singapore? There are so many levels of reality in a society that can only be seen through a literary lens and that’s what I attempted to do in The Singapore Decalogue.

Although the common thread of the stories is the protagonist Asif, each story deals with different aspects of socio-cultural and economic life of Singapore.  For instance, the story ‘Crime and Punishment’ deals with Asif’s first encounter with night life and his consciousness is depicted through the character of a monk. In a way, monk symbolically represents the internal moral clash in Asif. Your comments.

As you can gauge from the title of the story, Crime and Punishment, is my tribute to master storyteller Dostoevsky. In fact, the first few lines of the story are quite similar to the beginning of Dostoevsky’s novel on the moral downfall of a young intellectual in Russia.

This story triggers the events in the life of Asif that are to follow in the coming years of his life. It depicts his moral downfall and the consequences of the moral choice that he makes. In a way, it sets him up for the final fall, the final plunge that awaits him at the end of the bridge. He makes a mistake under the spell of the devil, and in Asif’s case, the devil is his friend who introduces him to the concept of sin. What follows can been seen as the fall of Adam under the insinuation of Satan that leads to the eviction of Adam from paradise. Asif too is metaphorically evicted from Singapore (he becomes a struggler on the margins of society), a stand in for a Paradise on earth for an immigrant from a relatively poor background.

The character of the Black Monk is actually borrowed from a story by Chekhov. I love that tale of the psychological disintegration of a man so much that I wanted to invoke him in my story hoping that some curious readers will search for that beautiful story and thank me for pinpointing to that Chekhovian gem.

However, the character of the monk in my story serves two purposes. One, it gives a surreal dimension to the stories. And two, it represents a spiritual force for Asif—a source of redemption for him, if you will. Like an angel who follows you all the time, the monk keeps appearing in and disappearing from Asif’s life, giving him spiritual guidance because he has failed his conscience once.

The short fictions in The Singapore Decalogue are, in fact, seemed to be the typical situations that a foreign talent would encounter in Singapore in his or her attempt to fully integrate into Singaporean society. How successful Asif in this respect?

For an immigrant, integrating into a new society is always going to be a slow process. Add to it the problem of living in an individualized society.  Asif faces these challenges in Singapore too.

Is he successfully integrated? Yes and no. He has some local friends but his interactions are limited. It gives him an illusion of being a part of a Singaporean society but is difficult to ascertain if he is fully integrated into an already atomised society. He might feel the same living in Delhi or Mumbai. He is an uprooted character, living on the mercy of economic forces, living in the danger of becoming a social detritus like so many migrant workers.

The story ‘The Origin of Consciousness’ is about the difficult phase of life of the protagonist Asif. His loss of job and his subsequent attempts at finding a job suggests the kind of uncertainty that one has to fight with in a highly globalised milieu. Your comments?

IMG_6984When I was working on the stories, the global financial crisis was fully on, and job losses were being reported from all over the world. That sort of seeped into my stories too.

Also, if you look at the logical sequence of the stories, Asif’s job loss is the punishment for his crime. The monk had predicted some kind of retribution for his transgression and that was it. It comes to him in the form of a job loss.

On the other hand, he is also the victim of someone else’s transgression: in this case, his boss’, which leads to the collapse of the company.

Today, whether you look at Singapore or other countries like the USA, the prospect of losing your job is always there. That is the sad reality of today’s life and most new immigrants, who are without the support system of a native, live with this uncertainty.

In the short fiction ‘The Colour of Your Skin’, you eloquently articulated the racial dynamics in Singaporean society. How far your skin colour matters when it comes to employment even in a highly cosmopolitan economy like Singapore?

Singapore has strong policies in place to check and combat racism. By and large, Singapore is free of racial prejudice which is a great achievement for Singapore and the country should be proud of it.

But when racism is also a function of employment, then it can come frighteningly close to individual prejudices. What if the person interviewing you has a disliking for a certain race?  It can have reverse implications too. What if the interviewer is biased in favour of a certain race? These kind of individual biases, both positive and negative, can creep in very subtly and can go undetected.

Another kind of racism could be in the form of being anti-foreigner, and it could be in rhetoric or in action. But I must say, by and large, Singapore thrives on the culture of meritocracy, and the government tries its best to check any expression of racism in society.

In the short fiction, ‘Handful of Ashes and Masala Chai’, through the funeral of Maggie’s mother, you have dealt with a social life of a segment of the Singaporean society.  How the fast moving life’s style in Singapore affects the traditional family ties, particularly, among aging parents and their children?

This is a very touching issue for me and this is something that the Singaporean government is worried about too. Because of intense urbanisation and the apartment system in Singapore, it is difficult for families to live together. Since everybody has to work, who has the time to look after the old?

This is a consequence of Singapore’s social and economic policies. Yet, I have seen Singaporeans coping with it very well. They remain in touch with their parents, and whenever they get a chance, they visit them. Some families tend to stay close by. Sometimes, old parents help out with child rearing for their offspring. There is no dearth of filial piety in Singapore, which is remarkable.

You can find similar issues in developing countries like India. When children have to move to cities in search of jobs, old parents are left behind in villages. The children would visit them off an on and help them out as much as they can. Such problems are the consequences of urbanization and economic forces that shape our societies. Joint families living together under one roof is not the norm any more as the era of agrarian societies is long gone. It is no body’s fault, actually.

Despite all the attempts that Asif made in realising his dream in Singapore, he becomes a victim and commits suicide. How would you revisit the Asif’s end?  Would it be a fate of many new immigrants in a foreign soil?

I hope the book’s ending is seen as open-ended enough to let a reader draw his or her own conclusions: is Asif dreaming or is he taking a plunge? Is he really committed suicide?

Whatever the case, Asif clearly desires escape from his unbearable situation.

But you can’t say this is the fate of all immigrants in a foreign land. Stories are about specific characters in a specific time in a specific place. What happens with that character could happen to anyone who lives in that society and that is the burden of truth that a character can semantically carry.

As long as what Asif does and what happens to him remains plausible, it is fine as a piece of fiction in my opinion. A piece of fiction should offer you a continuous, uninterrupted dream, and you should be able to enter its world and stay in there by suspending your disbelief.  That is what I have tried to do as a writer in this book, and it should be pretty much true for any work of fiction.

One of the important aspects of Singaporean life is its proliferating night life. You have described the red-light district of Singapore, Geylang.  How would you describe the changing sociological dynamics in Geylang and the role it plays in the lives of immigrants and tourists in Singapore?

IMG_5289Geylang is an interesting space. In a hyper-modernised Singapore, it comes as a breath of fresh air. Luckily, it has so far escaped from the ersatz modernity that might render it into another soul-less mall ground. Both locals and tourists visit it for its authentic atmosphere, its cuisine and of course, its brothels.

But as you can see, with the arrival of the Internet, things have changed a bit. Those who want a certain kind of entertainment can find it through the Internet. We have had many reports about the Internet-based vice rings that the police have unearthed. Also, a lot of blue-collar workers find lovers in their own community—Bangladeshi migrant workers dating Filipino maids on weekends—that kind of thing is also happening.

At the same time, you have to see that Singapore now has casinos and a thriving banking sector. Therefore, the social profile of high-spenders has changed. The wealthy might go for an escort service rather than visit the brothels in Geylang. But Geylang retains its pull for the foreign workers, the cheap tourists and those Singaporeans who cannot defy its charms.

My story about Geylang is not about titillation. It is about the human tragedy that we witness in vices such as flesh trade and human trafficking that are controlled by forces economic and criminal, and those concerns still hold water, no matter how morphed the vice providers become. It is a human tragedy and it will remain so, and hence the stigma and concern around it.

From a broader perspective, The Singapore Decalogue is a socio-cultural analysis of Singaporean society that you live in for years. How would you put yourself in Asif’s shoes as foreign talent who has successfully integrated into the Singaporean society?

I think I have partly answered this question in reply to your first question.

As an immigrant myself, I have no difficulty identifying with Asif. But I guess Asif is far too sensitive for me and far too morally alive.

I don’t want to emphasize too much on the ‘integration’ issue. It is more of a socio-political programme. How do you ascertain integration? Is it a multiple choice Q&A that you have to clear? Is it measured by the number of locals you know? Or is it measured by your comfort level that you achieve in a society?

It is very easy to integrate into the Singaporean society as Singaporeans are very friendly people. Again, the level of integration varies from person to person. Some people like to confine themselves to their own immigrant networks and some venture out to build bridges with the locals. Some want to sink roots in Singapore and some are birds of passage. An immigrant has to decide whether he wants to integrate or remain aloof. Unfortunately, no matter how much integrated a person becomes, he cannot avoid the urban alienation that is the blight of modern societies.

As far as I am cornered, I used to feel alienated in India itself. I used to live in Delhi and I had some friends and yet I lived like an immigrant in my own country. I think slowly we are all becoming digital nomads and immigrants, no matter where we live, because modern life is only such and it disorients us socially and economically. We have become pawns in the hands of the economic forces and we have lost the collective power of bargaining that protected us from falling prey to rapacious rent-seekers. This is exactly what happens to Asif. He becomes a victim of the system, which is much larger than him, though he thinks that he has brought all the bad luck upon himself on his own.

I don’t think Asif is bothered about integration as such. He is twisted around by the economic forces of life that are much larger than him. Perhaps he shouldn’t have become an immigrant in the first place but did he have a choice? Did his country offer him the choices that he had wanted? There could be many invisible contours of Asif’s life that the reader has to figure out. And that is the beauty of literature, I guess.

This interview was first published in Ceylon Today on 27 July 2014. The book is available at for purchase.

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